The Photographer's Responsibility

We take cameras and lenses apart all the time, but we rarely dissect what makes our businesses tick.
Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

I was disappointed, though ultimately not surprised, to discover that a photographer, recently returned to the local market, was circulating a price list for services that offered access to RAW files and all rights to the work done.
This, the shooter explained, was necessary to compete in the market in it's current state.
"What can we do about it?" I was asked.

The answer was not as the clearly agonized photographer suggested, to call a meeting of senior photographers to discuss this matter. That would presume that the local professional photographic community, many of whom have been in the business for decades, had somehow managed to miss this rather obvious development or that such a group of experienced practitioners could do a damn thing about it. It’s not as if the professional community hasn’t experienced a group of photographers arriving half-baked and undercharging before, it just hasn’t happened on quite this scale before or with technology that lubricated exact copying like computers do.

Adding kerosene to my doubts about the usefulness of such a move is the Abyssinian gulf between the pros who anchored the local photographic market over the last few decades and the new digitally enabled photographers who have swarmed the market in the last few years.
I'm a bit of an aberration among my peers, participating the way I do in online social networks. Very few of the photographers I've known longest are actively presenting themselves on the web or even using something as accessible as Facebook.

Some of that has to do with
this other thing that I do, and some of it has to do with the fact that beyond the commonality of the equipment we use –itself fractured among younger photographers on the basis of silly brand preferences –most people using cameras are actually quite different personalities.
There are, among such shooters I have known over the years, a number of artists, geniuses, gentlemen and ladies, plodders, hustlers, thieves and a sex exploiter or two.

Very few photographers are numbered among my equally few friends, and the quality of their work and success has more to do with who they are as people than their choice of photography as a career or calling.
I also have no shortage of trepidation about dealing with today’s young photographers who are often quite drunk on the fumes of their success and adamantly unwilling to hear anything about the “old way” that things were done in the business. After all, before digital, all was barbarism.
I had one particularly unsatisfying experience recently with a young photographer who objected rather viciously to my reservations about his predilection for wearing a “Media” badge on his assignments (a not uncommon tactic, I’ve found) despite not representing any acknowledged media house.

The dilemma that photographers face in today's commercial markets is the result of supply and demand. There is simply too much adequate photography flooding the market and buyers have discovered that they can successfully insist on lower prices and more rights than ever before. The response to these demands, it seems, is no longer informed by experience or the expectations of a long career and job negotiations shred like wet toilet paper, not least because a photographer dabbling with the craft for less than five years is unlikely to be thinking about things like archives and a body of work.

Let's not talk about it
The issue is a market problem, not a meeting problem and it should be solved in the market, not in talkshops.
I have no idea what "we" can do, or even who "we" are, but I'm going to lay out some facts worth considering, since I believe these are considerations that rise above the many individual permutations of business approaches.
Clients and customers must do what they do, which is to buy as much for as little as possible and photographers must also fulfil their responsibility, which is to supply commercially viable photographs and ultimately to create a body of work, along with a bank account, capable of constituting a legacy for their families and heirs.

Photographers make their living off the licensing of their intellectual property, not from shooting their way through memory cards full of images and burning them off to CDs.
The late photographer Noel Norton supported himself in the twilight of his career by licensing his library of photographs. I'm not there yet, but anywhere between five and ten percent of my annual income comes from photographs I shot many years ago. That figure improves steadily as more of my film migrates to archived high resolution bits.
If you surrender the rights to your work, you have nothing.

That said, much of what's now called "corporate work" is only of marginal value to photographers and even to the companies that commission it. I discovered this when I tried to sell old negatives (filed in a binder I helpfully labelled PR Shit) to a leading bank that I'd worked for extensively over my first decade in the business.
I think they took ten rolls out of hundreds and even that, I think, was really a nod of friendship to our long relationship.

If you give up the rights to your work, you also give up the incentive to preserve it.
The lion's share of clients have no system for archiving and retrieving the photographs they commission. They won't keep it and neither will you if you have no incentive to. I’ve actually seen wedding negatives stored with the fine cutlery by a client who fought to get them from the photographer. They weren’t going to survive many posh dinner events.

If say you’re a professional photographer, then be professional
Abandoning your work like that is an abrogation of the photographer's key responsibility to care for, and keep accessible for licensing, the work that they create.
Most clients don't know what the hell to do with RAW files and those that think they do have no idea what your post-processing intent was. They will probably try to open them in Adobe Bridge (does anyone go to the Bridge anymore?), lose all your careful edits in Lightroom or Capture One and dismiss the work as crap, cheerfully ruining your reputation.

And you'll never know why. "Savvy" designers will destroy your original photographic intent with bold reprocessing moves that have nothing to do with your personal style.
There may be some situations in which it’s just easier to hand over a large collection of images to a client or agency, but I’ve never encountered a situation like that where 8-bit TIFF files, delivered with basic post processing to my satisfaction, failed to give the customer what they needed.

It’s no argument to counter that you aren't that good with a RAW processor or Photoshop. If you’re advertising yourself as a professional photographer, you'd better know more about the photographic process than the client. It's not just about your magical "eye," it's about demonstrable mastery of a complicated process that makes you the go-to person to solve a client's problem.
Professionalism implies authority, not servitude.

Pick a side
If you’re in a situation like this, these are your options as I see them.

If you are unable to distinguish yourself from dozens of rapacious competitors…
If you are unable to successfully negotiate the right to deliver finished files that demonstrate value to a client…
If you are unable to negotiate terms that retain your legal right to the work you create…

…stop pissing in the pool and go get a day job.

If you surrender the rights to your intellectual property as part of your contractual arrangements with a client, you’re already a work made for hIre employee except that your salary is irregular and devoid of perks to boot. Go sign up for group insurance and a dental plan and leave the unstable, challenging photography market to those with a long-term interest in developing it. Oh wait. Half of you already have a day job.

Take pictures because you like to and enjoy the experience. There’s nothing inherently noble in being a professional photographer and I’m not sure why there’s such haste to become one. There’s a lot to be said for being a really good amateur photographer, free to explore the craft on your own terms and with no-one to answer to. And if it turns out that you have a real talent for it and you’re willing to make it a career, then come to the business in good faith or go bother the art world.

Negotiation is not capitulation.
If you choose to stick around to compete, please do so on the basis of demonstrable skill, style and technique.
Learn to negotiate and apply up-to-date principles of business and modern photography practice to your marketing and sales strategies.
It’s surprising to me that young people who are capable of vacuuming information from the many websites that explain how to take fashion photos with homemade equipment and use Photoshop to turn skin into plastic don’t take any notice of the equally accessible sites that discuss and consider the shifting landscape of rights negotiation and market positioning.

There is no single answer to the questions that arise in the photography business.
In sharing early drafts of this post with some of those “senior photographers” I’d mentioned earlier, some noted that there were situations in which handing over RAW files made sense for them and that’s cool. These aren’t photographers who are folding to the demands of the market, they are negotiating their skills and the assets that result from their work to their benefit with a clear idea on the most profitable settlement for their particular situation.

I have, on a few isolated instances, sold all rights to my work in situations in which there would be greater benefit to surrendering those rights for a fee than holding onto them to preserve images that would be ultimately unsaleable.
Now before you hold onto that sentence in triumph, remember that today’s unsalable photo is sometimes tomorrow’s astonishing artifact. Many photographs done for purely commercial purposes have now become valuable records of lost technologies and have proven crucial to remembering the histories of businesses and their business processes.

In some ways, I’m doing something I’m usually loath to do here, getting involved in the way that people do business, but there are, and should continue to be, common principles in the way the photography business should be managed and I hope that some of those notions come through clearly here.

Accept your responsibility to the trade you’re practicing in and try to understand what happened in the business before you came along. The hard work and sacrifices of the professionals who were in the photography business before you arrived triumphantly with your shiny new digital camera created a viable business that you might destroy through carelessness and ignorance. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then ask.
I answer sensible questions all the time and many of my colleagues do as well.
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